Ute Gause, Cordula Lissner. Kosmos Diakonissenmutterhaus: Geschichte und Gedächtnis einer protestantischen Frauengemeinschaft. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2005. 293 S. EUR 22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-374-02267-0.
Reviewed by Rebecca Ayako Bennette (Department of History, Middlebury College)
Published on H-German (March, 2007)
Women on the Move
As recounted in Kosmos Diakonissenmutterhaus, the first half of the nineteenth century saw an increased interest in welfare and social work within Protestantism. This development was partially a response to the social miseries associated with industrialization, but also connected to the Erweckungsbewegung. These increased efforts led to the creation of new roles for individuals within Protestantism that would enable its institutions to provide care and welfare services to various groups in need. For women in particular, a new avenue opened up in 1836 when Pastor Theodor Fliedner established the first motherhouse for deaconesses in Kaiserswerth, today a district of Düsseldorf. Deaconesses were unmarried women who combined religious devotion with provision of services in numerous fields, including nursing. The institution in Kaiserswerth soon grew to support not only its own hospital but also an orphanage, a school, and a sanatorium for women with mental health disorders, among other facilities. The model proved successful and was imitated by numerous other motherhouses for deaconesses founded throughout the nineteenth century. Numerically, the Kaiserswerth deaconesses continued to grow until the 1930s. Increasing difficulties, especially in recruiting new members, led to various changes at Kaiserswerth, yet the sisters continued to maintain a presence in many communities and stations in foreign countries until the end of the twentieth century.
In this volume, editors Ute Gause and Cordula Lissner present the fruits of an oral history project focusing on the deaconesses of the Kaiserswerth motherhouse. Between 2001 and 2004 Lissner and Birgit Funke, another member of the project, conducted interviews with forty women. The project focused on deaconesses already in retirement; many of the sisters interviewed were in their 80s and 90s. The structure of the interviews allowed the women to tell their life stories in an open-ended narrative, although the interviewers later posed further questions about subjects of particular interest. In a second phase of the project, the interviewers also collected information from group discussions designed to foster conversation on specific topics, such as the use of forced labor at Kaiserswerth during the Third Reich. In addition, the project collected biographical data on a total of 239 sisters from Kaiserswerth. The individual interviews, the information collected from the group discussions, and the biographical data are all archived at the Fliedner-Kulturstiftung.
The rich sources for research that this oral history project has preserved for future scholars is showcased in the first part of the volume. Gause and Lissner include the accounts of five of the interviewed women from Kaiserswerth. Four were deaconesses and a fifth was a member of the diaconal sisterhood, which remained a separate branch of sisters at Kaiserswerth until 2001. The five women's years of service span from the Weimar era up until the present decade; their accounts give a nice overview of the constant challenges and changing demands facing the sisters of Kaiserswerth. These life histories provide insight into the process women had to undergo to join the ranks of deaconesses at the motherhouse, including the years of training during not only a probationary period but also a pre-probationary period. After these years of training, formal acceptance as a deaconess could be followed by postings to stations both near and far, as service in foreign countries by three of the five women indicates. Positions could be held long term, thirty-three years in one case, or the sister might be moved around from station to station, filling in where most necessary at the moment. Especially prominent in the account of one of the younger sisters, who only recently went into retirement, is the dramatic restructuring of the role of the deaconesses in 1971. Just as prominent in the last account is a strong sense of doubt about the future social role of the sisterhood.
These interviews are not only rich with detail about the lives of deaconesses during the twentieth century, but they also include information of interest to the more general reader. The life histories provide glimpses of hyperinflation during the early Weimar years, the difficulties of rebuilding after World War II, and the women's movement, to give a few examples. Even beyond that, they are interesting to read simply for the rather amazing experiences that the women relate. Anyone worried that such accounts will be about "a boring and structured life" will be positively surprised, as Norbert Friedrich, one of the scholars involved with the oral history project, concludes (p. 281).
The second part of the book presents six essays by scholars from multiple disciplines, each of whom analyzes a different aspect of the data collected by the oral history project. Against a backdrop of the more formal rules regulating the deaconesses as a group, Gause examines the interview material to highlight individual understandings of piety. This piety helped its practitioners during difficult times, whether during conflicts with other sisters or dealing with the difficulties of adjusting to communal life at Kaiserswerth. Birgit Funke focuses on the deaconesses involved in the care or education of children. She examines the relationships that developed between some of the deaconesses in this field and the children they had contact with, in some ways allowing the women to have a family outside of the sisterhood, despite the choice to remain unmarried and childless. Funke finds that visits and feedback from grown children who have kept in contact with individual sisters are of central importance to the women's roles as deaconesses. Margot Sieger examines changes in the requirements for the nursing profession over the twentieth century and considers the opportunities the deaconesses had for training in the duties expected of them. Her contribution makes clear the high demands placed on deaconesses serving in hospitals. Uwe Kaminsky considers how deaconesses portrayed the period of the Third Reich in their life histories. While the deaconesses at Kaiserswerth were involved in racial hygiene measures, such as sterilization operations, and also had daily contact with forced laborers, Kaminsky finds that these events are largely glossed over in the accounts.
In perhaps the most interesting of all the contributions, Lissner analyzes migration experiences among the deaconesses. Although the motherhouse often sent deaconesses off to far away lands without much forewarning or basic language training, Lissner concludes that these women did not experience the same difficulties migrating as most workers would have. As they often traveled to stations that maintained close ties to communities of Germans living abroad and were mainly in the close company of other deaconesses, the sisters were insulated from many difficulties. Though in some sense they did not truly live in a foreign country despite being abroad, Lissner finds that such experiences still played a large role in the accounts of the women who went away. In the final essay, Friedrich focuses on how the women viewed their relationship to the institution at Kaiserswerth. He finds a mixture of both criticism of and also identification with the institution in the accounts from deaconesses.
Certainly the volume has achieved one of the main goals set forth by the editors. Instead of focusing on institutional history, as many other accounts have, they wished to bring forth the stories of the sisters themselves. Moreover, as both the life histories and the scholarly essays make clear, the sisters could at times carve out significant areas of freedom, despite institutional constraints that appeared insurmountable on the surface.
Perhaps the main problematic issue with the book is that it does not provide enough background information, which would have been especially useful in the introduction to the volume. Understandably, the purpose of the book is not to rehash a more general history of the deaconesses. Furthermore, some basic elements are discussed in the essays in the second part. Yet, as the back cover of the book indicates that deaconesses are an "almost unknown Protestant women's occupation," some more information about them would have been helpful. Given the doubts raised in the final life history, it would also have been interesting to know more about the current situation of the women who now belong to the sisterhood, which was restructured again in 2001.
Moreover, the afterword by deaconess Ruth Felgentreff refers to the book as one "against prejudices" (p. 290). As these are the last words of the volume, they leave an impression. But it remains unspecified exactly what prejudices are being combated. A hint comes from Friedrich's comment about the "prejudice" that deaconesses' life stories would be boring (p. 281). It could also refer to negative estimations of women who ruled out marriage and children or to the idea that deaconesses merely did as they were told and had no lives or wills of their own. These possibilities are alluded to in the volume, but a more explicit connection would have been helpful.
Overall, Kosmos Diakonissenmutterhaus is an informative and enjoyable book. The preservation of additional data on the Kaiserswerth deaconesses as part of the larger oral history project is also worthy of praise. That the main critique of the book is a wish for more information on some issues points to just how engaging the histories of the sisters are.
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Rebecca Ayako Bennette. Review of Gause, Ute; Lissner, Cordula, Kosmos Diakonissenmutterhaus: Geschichte und Gedächtnis einer protestantischen Frauengemeinschaft.
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